Crowdfunded Journalism

The philosophy of the Raqqa front: ‘He who only fights, forgets the ideology’

Fréderike Geerdink photo
Fréderike GeerdinkHaseke, Syria
The philosophy of the Raqqa front: ‘He who only fights, forgets the ideology’
The Syrian Democratic Forces have almost completed their encirclement of the city of Raqqa, the ‘capital’ of Daesh. But questions are being asked about a partly Kurdish force taking an Arab city. Byline reports from Syria.

Tomorrow part two in this miniseries!
Published by now: The wounded of the Raqqa front. 

Every morning at eight thirty the group of wounded fighters relocates to the classroom. An education session is scheduled, on this Tuesday morning about the ‘social contract of North Syria’. The fighters – eight men, five women – are sitting on cushions along the walls, on which portraits of comrades who didn’t survive the war are hanging. ‘It is good to not be at the front continuously’, says fighter Ronahi. ‘He who only fights, forgets the ideology.’

You could call it the ‘Kurdish area’, the area in the north of Syria where the city of Haseke is located. There is a recuperation centre for the wounded located there, and a hospital for fighters. For the last couple of months it is mainly men and women who were injured at the front two hundred kilometres to the south-west, around the city of Raqqa, the ‘capital’ of Daesh, that are being brought in. The battle for Raqqa started in November last year.

SDF fighters in the Raqqa area. (Photo via Özgürlükcü Demokrasi)

Most of the wounded here are Kurds. The forces in which they fight, however, are mixed. The Kurdish group the YPG, which manages to keep Daesh out of historical Kurdish lands since 2012 and which became legendary with its fight against the jihadists in the Syrian-Kurdish city of Kobani, started an alliance with Arabic groups in October 2015. Initially the Kurds were largely in the majority in what is now called the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), but in the course of the struggle more Arabs joined.

In the recuperation centre the number of Arabs is minimal. Their background is different than that of the Kurds being treated. The Arabs often have families with which they can stay during their recuperation, as do some of the Kurdish fighters who were born and raised in Syria. Most of the Kurds, and one Armenian, at the recuperation centre, however, come from Turkey. Years ago they originally joined the Turkish-Kurdish group the PKK, which deployed them to fight with the YPG, and they were later absorbed into the SDF. For them, there is no family they can or want to return to.

Under Kurdish control

It raises questions, often in a judgemental tone. What are Kurds from Turkey doing at the front of the mainly Arab city of Raqqa? Is it smart anyway to let an armed force with so many Kurds take an Arab city? Do the Arab citizens there even want their city under partly Kurdish control?
On the international political stage it is Turkey that is outraged. The Americans support the SDF, which Turkey sees as just the YPG with a different name, and thus a terrorist organisation because of its affiliation with the PKK, with which Turkey has been in a state of war for more than thirty-five years and which is also listed as a terrorist organisation by the US and the EU. The Americans say the YPG and the SDF are not on that list, they are the most effective forces on the ground and they will keep supporting them.

YPG fighter with Öcalan emblem. (Photo via Kurdish Question)

For the fighters, it’s all about ideology. And that ideology is represented by the emblem that many soldiers have taped to the upper arm of their uniform: yellow, with a black silhouette of the face of Abdullah Öcalan, the man who in 1978 played the leading role in the foundation of the PKK, and who has been imprisoned in Turkey since 1999. It’s the ideology that he developed which binds the fighters.

It’s because of that ideology that the struggle goes beyond ethnicities like Kurdish, Arab, Turkmen or Assyrian and beliefs like Sunni or Shia Islam or Christianity. What counts is that Syria, just like the whole of the Middle-East, is a patchwork of ethnicities and religions and that for a lasting peace one thing is crucial: live together, administer together. The ideology provides a system of grassroots democracy, in which citizens’ assemblies are in charge of administration.

The rules of the game

In the areas that the YPG defends militarily, the system is at work already. That hasn’t only lead to a relative peace while in the rest of Syria the war rages on, but also to extended rights for various ethnicities and religions. The rules of the game are laid down in the ‘social contract’, the subject of the education session that Tuesday morning. The booklet from which one of the fighters reads out loud, is printed in three languages: Arab, Kurdish and Assyrian.

Tolvin, a fighter from Turkey who was wounded in the leg while on an offensive to take a village close to Raqqa, quotes a citizen when she is asked why a partly Kurdish group should take an Arab city like Raqqa: ‘She said that she had had no hope that we, Kurds, would liberate Arabs. But we don’t fight for a certain group. We fight against Daesh and for peace and democracy.’

Fighter Harun, who was covered in a rain of burning hot pieces of metal in a rocket attack, adds that the SDF will not ‘take over’ Raqqa anyway. ‘Militarily, yes, but the administration will be transferred to the citizens. Then they can work it out in the way they see fit.’

All names in this article are noms de guerre.

#Raqqa, #Syrian Democratic Forces, #Daesh, #Islamic State, #Haseke, #Syria, #Middle-East, #Rojava